They say that the castle deep in the forest outside Storybrooke is enchanted. They say that no one who enters it can leave. They say that an evil queen reigns over it, terrible and twisted and dark.
They say that she was cursed– by a fairy, by a witch, by another queen. Some whisper that the enchantress had been her own mother, a line of witches rotten to the core. They say that she is just as much a prisoner in her castle as anyone else, and only true love can set her free.
They say that she’s a beast, belladonna-beautiful on the outside and poison within. They say that she is terrible and evil and twisted within; and that certainly, she will never find that true love that would save her. She will rot in her castle until the last of the enchantment takes hold and then endure forever in despair.
For who could ever love a beast?
There are few stories that begin with an ending, but our story today must, if it will ever begin. It begins with two endings at once, two hearts wildly beating and then silenced. It begins with a curse- with murder most foul- and it begins with a blessing that costs another her life.
And as a body falls to the floor to an agonized cry, across the woods, in a little village, there's a new cry, tinny and reedy and full of needs that can't be expressed. There's a low hush, child and a midwife gathering a bundle close to her as another gently closes a mother's eyes.
There is a beginning in these endings, after all, as a girl in a castle weeps into her hands and a much smaller girl surveys the world for the first time.
It's the younger girl's story we will hear today.
It's rather grim at first, of course; there's little hope for a child without a mother or father. The midwife keeps her until there's simply not enough food to go around, and then she's sent to a blacksmith without children until his wife is unexpectedly with child.
The little girl learns very young that family is as elusive as magic and can elicit hope and fear in equal measure. The little girl learns that the world is harsh and hard and she will have to be as hard as the world or she will break. The little girl has angry eyes, a kindly villager says, and she simply can't take in a difficult child right now.
The little girl with angry eyes grows up angrier, grows up harder. She scoffs at fairytales and true love and dreams late at night of them all the same. She loses two apprenticeships, learns the vocation of snatch-and-run instead, and finds herself locked in a lord's dungeons at seventeen.
And then something curious happens, the likes of which had never happened before and is in fact enough to make her hard eyes widen and falter.
The little girl is found by someone who wants her.
"What's your name?" the woman inquires, drawing her silk closer to her as she offers the girl a painted-lip smile. She has hard eyes, too, though it isn't anger that makes them hard.
“Emma," the girl says. The lord stands behind the woman, bored at the exchange. He calls her girl and street rat and has never once asked for the name etched on a blanket she'd left in the woods before she'd been caught. “Emma Swan."
"Emma," the woman repeats, and her eyes are cool as she turns away. Emma sags. But the woman says, "I will take her as a part of my price.”
"A part!" the lord echoes, and there is haggling and threats and a whisper of something that might be magic in the air. Emma stands white-knuckled and wipes her thoughts blank of emotion until she's stumbling beside the woman's rapid clip and the sun is beating down on her prison-pale skin.
"I don't know what you think I can do," she says quickly, determined not to hope when she knows where that always ends. "I never completed an apprenticeship. I don't have any money. I don't even have any clothing. My last mother said that I'm 'useless'. I don't know what you think I can do," she says again.
The woman turns to face her, her eyes glinting. "Can you steal for me, Emma Swan?”
"Oh." Emma watches her warily, expecting a trap. But there is only silence and expectation. "What do you want me to steal?”
"People," the woman says, and thus begins the chapter of the little girl with angry eyes and Lady Cora.
Now, while you and I might have seen this as the beginning of a fairytale, Emma Swan had had less grandiose expectations of a rags-to-riches story. Emma Swan had met few kind people in this world and even fewer who would spirit a girl like her from prison for noble purposes, and she had already begun to steel for the worst when she’d met Lady Cora.
She’d thought Lady Cora might traffic in people in the worst of ways, enslave young women or carry out kidnapping plots for the children of local lords. She’d been sure that she’d have to run or risk doing something unforgivable. Emma had never believed in fairytales, and she’d known better than to believe that one had stumbled across her now.
But Lady Cora, as it winds up, is as close to a queen as there could ever be in Storybrooke (excepting the queen that supposedly lives in the nearby woods). She governs her villages with an iron fist, and she has no tolerance for criminals or murderers in her midst. And all queens need thieves of their own, of course, because they can rarely be bothered to dirty their skirts with criminal chases.
This isn’t to say that Lady Cora is a noble or good queen, and Emma knows that from the start. She is cruel and harsh, a queen who rules by fear and shows only calculated kindness. But she’s earned Emma’s loyalty from the start, and Emma is wary but grateful regardless.
Eight years pass in this way, with very little to report to you, my dear reader, beyond the humdrum of everyday work. And Emma works quite a bit. Here are some things that Emma excels at: finding runners who violate Cora’s laws; seducing men and women into imprisonment; maneuvering around Cora at her most dangerous.
Here are some things that Emma does not excel at: bringing in impoverished villagers who raise Cora’s ire when they can no longer pay taxes to her; controlling her temper when Cora finds fault with this; making friends.
“Someday, you’ll find your true love, too,” a woman had said to her desperately as Emma had dragged her into her carriage. “You’ll understand then.”
“If you have to kill his wife for it, is it really true love?” Emma had slammed the door shut and locked it, scoffing to herself.
“That's the best kind of true love,” Cora’s deputy says, smirking at her. He’s a man who fancies himself a pirate, even though he’d nearly drowned the last time he’d proposed to her and she’d shoved him into the lake. Jones has it in his head that they’re going to wind up lovers or married, no matter how many times she’s had to inform him that they aren’t engaged.
“True love is a heaping pile of manure,” Emma says pleasantly, and when Jones slings his hooked hand around her shoulders, she leans back a step, twists her shoulders, and sends him tumbling into a stinking pile of said manure by the side of the road.
Emma, you see, has very little patience for affectations like true love. Love ends with rejection or despair or selfishness, she thinks, and none of that is true. Love is a useless delusion of attraction for which she has no patience.
Does she know of the full story of the queen in the castle just yet? We can’t say for sure. Perhaps she’d overheard it from gossiping villagers, or from Lady Cora’s odd assistant, Doctor Gold. Knowing Emma as we do by now, I can’t imagine that she'd paid it any mind if she had heard it.
The one thing she certainly knows: Never set foot into the castle in the woods, or you will never escape it.
Everyone knows that, though few have ever stumbled across the castle. There had been an old story of a man whose body had been found outside its gates just around when Emma had been plucked from prison, his body half-devoured by wolves. By the queen, some had whispered instead, eyes bright with fear and fascination. Emma had been too busy to listen to rumors back then.
You might think by now that Emma had been hardened even more by her day-to-day life, dealing with Lady Cora and with cruel, violent people. But somehow, she’d become a curiosity instead, a woman who works for Lady Cora for eight years and never picked up her cruelty. She would march through the village with a struggling prisoner in front of her and march right back through it to look after young Cinders-Ella with her new baby and hovel. She becomes a fierce protector of the needy, the helpless, the ones who Cora loathes most. She is kind, some of the villagers insist, and others laugh and laugh until tears stream from their faces at the thought of one of Cora’s entourage being kind.
But Emma, too stubborn to believe in faith or love or dreams, is equally determined to make sure that others believe in all of it instead. It is impossible to resolve the woman who would kill for Cora with the woman who would hunt down Hansel and Gretel’s father to return him to them, and so few bother to try.
Lady Cora is derisive but does not interfere. You see, Doctor Gold had foreseen, many years ago, that Emma Swan would be vital to Cora’s life or death someday, though he could not tell her for better or for worse. Lady Cora is careful to nurture Emma’s loyalty but never let her stray too far, lest she lose her tight control over the woman.
For her part, Emma is comfortable with her position and her life as it is. There is a creeping emptiness within her that she never quite resolves, a hole in her heart that had grown and grown since she’d been a child. She covers it up with layers and layers of shields, protects it from the world and from her own thoughts, and she keeps busy so she might never contemplate it.
And so our story takes us to Emma riding through the woods in the rain one evening, out on a manhunt that had taken longer than it should have and left her very irritated. She is irritated as a rule today, rather, though this new inconvenience hasn’t improved her mood. Twenty-eight years ago to this day, Emma had lost the only person before Cora who had wanted her, and each birthday is only a reminder of a woman she could never meet.
Her mark had run off before the rain had begun, fleeing to shelter and leaving Emma with gritted teeth and matted hair, urging her horse through paths in the woods that weren’t paths at all. Between the moonless night and the rain, it had taken Emma nearly an hour before she'd realized just how lost she is, and bites out a curse and rides on.
She’d hoped she might stumble across something familiar, but the woods seem larger and more confusing than ever. There are wolves howling to the moon and sheets of rain beating down on her and she can't see much of anything but the trees directly in front of her.
It comes as a surprise when she looks up and sees, instead of trees, an enormous gate rising in front of her. She squints again, frowns at what can't possibly be real, but it remains ahead of her, partially open and with dim movements near the entrance.
Impossible. But then the rain slows for a moment and she sees what is beyond the gate: first, a castle, tall but concealed from the world by the hilly mountains around it. Second and more urgently, she is able to make out what the dim movements are.
Because, of course, it wouldn’t be that easy to walk inside a castle where no one can leave. White wolves move through the gates like ghosts in the dark, their low growls finally audible through the rain as they bear down on a figure hanging from the gate.
“Help!” It's the shout of a boy, a child, young and terrified, just within the gates of the castle. He hangs desperately from a pole of the gate while white wolves leap at him. They'd torn his shoes and clothes half off of him and he is bleeding profusely from a wound on his calf, and his hands are slipping against the rain-slicked metal of the gate. “Mama!” he screams. “Help! Mama!" But even Emma, just a few feet away, can hardly hear him. Wherever his mother is, she must have been impeded by the wolves.
And if you’ve been paying attention to our story by now, you know what Emma Swan’s response to a boy in danger would be. It should be no surprise to you that the warnings to never enter the castle barely fly through her mind before she’s riding forward, urging her horse into the the pack of wolves and calling out to the boy. “Kid!” she shouts, and the boy nearly slips from his position in astonishment. “Hold on!”
“Who are you?” he demands, and Emma ignores him as her horse rears up in protest. A castle that no one can leave once entered. The boy’s hand slips and he slides down the gate, screaming again as he scrabbles desperately for purchase, and Emma urges her horse on with a slap to his flank and hurtles toward the boy just as he finally falls.
She seizes him by his ripped tunic and yanks him to her, settling him on the horse as she ducks her head. “Get ready,” she instructs the boy, and he huddles back against her as she yanks a knife from her boot and swings it at the closest wolf.
It howls in agony, but it doesn't stop snapping at her until her horse makes a mad dash up the path, toward the castle entrance. And then, suddenly, the wolves stop completely. They fade into the dim light, the castle grounds clear and vacant, and not a wolf is in sight anymore. You see, these wolves are guardians, brought in by the curse to keep people in, not out. And Emma and the boy are now firmly inside the castle walls, whether they like it or not.
Emma, you may recall, has had some experience with prisons, though a dungeon under a lord’s home is no comparison to this magnificent castle. Still, she stares at the open gate with a sinking feeling and feels a wave of claustrophobia at the threat of a new imprisonment. But then the boy moans and Emma remembers the bite in his leg. “Let’s dress that wound,” she says gently, shivering in the rain. She eases him off the horse once they make it to the doors of the castle, hoists him into her arms and stumbles indoors.
He buries his face in her shoulder, a moan of pain slipping from his throat, and Emma feels a twinge of something in her heart that she keeps shielded and refuses to dwell on. “You’re going to be okay,” she promises the boy. “Whoever lives in this castle must have something to bandage you up with.”
She looks around for the first time and immediately regrets that confident assertion. She hadn’t considered much about the castle interior before she’d entered it, only that a castle this magnificent without any signs of decay must have been occupied. But instead, they’ve entered into an opulent grand hall that looks utterly abandoned.
There are cobwebs hanging from the walls, covering the chandelier at the center of the room. Dust mutes the colors of the walls, obscures the image of a woman in a painted glass window above them, is only lightly disturbed on the floor at one end of the staircases that wind around the far side of the hall. There are mirrored suits of armor on the opposite side of the room as the staircase, and even through the dust that coats them, Emma sees a telltale orange flicker. A fire. There is someone there, after all, and there is warmth and a fireplace reflected against that coat of armor.
She's still dizzy from her madcap ride through the woods and the rain and the wolves, and maybe that’s why she begins to hear what sounds like a low hum of conversation. Whispers. They are coming from around her, from places there are no people at all, and the boy hasn’t reacted to any of it. She must have been imagining things, hearing voices, and she sighs at herself and takes another step forward–
It’s at this moment that I must introduce you and Emma both to a certain two objects bobbing around nervously on the floor. Several minutes before, they hadn’t been on the floor at all. They’d been standing on a bookcase in the room where Emma was heading before I pulled you away, whispering furiously to each other.
“A girl!” the first had said, her eyes shining with glee. Most of her shines, as she is a small candelabra as well as being a rather impossible woman by the name of Zelena. “A woman! Here?”
“The queen won’t take kindly to her,” the other says warningly. She is called Mulan, and had settled into her position as enchanted clock and Zelena’s compatriot with glum resignation. “She shouldn’t be here. We'll have to hide her.”
“Hide her?” Zelena scoffs. “Hide a woman when we’re this close to being–“
“We both know that that’s as unlikely as–“
“You getting that stick out of your ass?” the candelabra grumbles.
Mulan sighs. “You know Regina. This isn’t going to end the way you want it to.”
“I can handle Regina,” Zelena says boldly. “We’ll show our guest to the sitting room and the rest will work itself out.” She sighs, smug again. “Snow, you keep an eye on the little one,” she orders a teapot who’d been watching Emma and the boy progress down the hall. “I’ll take care of our guest.” She hops off the shelf with some difficulty as Mulan slides into place beside her on the floor.
And that brings us back to the moment when Emma first meets them both. She stares. They stare back. “What the hell?” she demands, gaping at them and nearly dropping the boy. Emma knows of magic, of course, but very little of it had ever touched her. She’s never known enough about it to do more than stay away from a mark with a wand or ask no questions about Cora's sources or avoid the castle in the woods at all costs, for all the good that had done her. But those…enchanted objects…
Her mouth is still hanging slightly open, and the candelabra tilts its candle downward, extending its– hands. Those are hands– in a sweeping bow. And then it speaks, in an unmistakably feminine voice. “I am Zelena, at your service. This is Mulan,” she says, waving to her carelessly. Mulan tilts the top of her clock face, eyes wary on Emma. “What can we do for you tonight? You look like a drowned rat. It’s very homely. We’ll have to fix that,” Zelena says briskly, and Emma’s mouth hangs open a little more.
“Did you just…call me ugly? You’re a lamp.”
“I’m a candelabra! How dare you,” Zelena sniffs. “And silver doesn’t stay this clear unless there’s a genetic predisposition for clear skin, I’ll have you know. If you were–“
“Ignore her,” Mulan says hastily, cutting off the candelabra mid-sentence. Emma squints at her, thoroughly bewildered by them both. “I usually do, and I’m better off for it. That bite looks awful,” she says reprovingly, turning to the boy. “What did you do to it?”
He looks sullen in response, burying his face in Emma’s shoulder again. Emma swallows her bewilderment and says, “Look, um…Lady Clock. I really need something to bandage it up before any dirt gets into the wound.”
“She seems kind.” The third voice is a woman as well, a bit less strident than the candelabra’s and a bit less dour than the clock’s. There is a teapot at the end of the hall, in the cozy little room with the fireplace, and as Emma watches, it pours two teacups and sits back expectantly. “Why don’t you have a seat?” she offers.
And so Emma sets the boy down in a large, high-backed chair facing the fire as Mulan and Zelena vanish again in search of bandages for her. The boy hasn’t said a word since his screams of Mama! in the rain, and Emma keeps up a steady stream of chatter instead to distract him from the pain. She tells him about her mark, a man who’d been stealing goats from one of the outer edges of Storybrooke, and she tells him about a girl named Grace just his age who has a mad father and likes to travel with Emma to the market. The boy listens in silence until Emma runs out of words and the bite is properly cleaned and closed, and Emma sits on the floor beside the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket that Mulan had found her, and sips at the tea in defeated silence.
This isn’t so bad, she decides. Trapped in a castle with a bevy of enchanted objects at her beck and call isn’t the worst way to be trapped at all. At least she won’t be alone again, and she’ll have to find a way to reunite the boy with his mother–
There is a thunderous slam behind her and she jumps, spilling tea all over her bedraggled clothing as she twists around.
Storming into the room, eyes dark and in a gown as magnificent as the castle around them, is the most beautiful woman that Emma has ever seen. Her skin is darker than Emma’s, her cheekbones high and sharp, her eyes a fierce brown and her hair piled above her head like the sort of regal women that poets write epics about. Emma gapes at her, momentarily stunned to stillness, and the woman hurls her across the room with nothing more than a twitch of her fingers.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the woman demands.
“Snow invited her in here,” Zelena says quickly, pointing at the teapot with one lit candle. “Mulan and I had nothing to do with it.”
“In my castle?” the woman roars, ignoring the candelabra. “In my chair! You dare to invade my home for…what, a sighting of the beast? Do you know what I do to people like you?”
“I’m not–“ Emma struggles against the magic holding her in place. “I’m not here to look at anything!” The woman’s face darkens even more, and Emma swallows. “I don’t want to be here at all, so if you could call off your wolves, I’ll be on my way!” she grinds out, terrified and angry.
The woman looks unconvinced, eyes flashing. “Liar. Why else would you be here?” she snaps. “Don’t you know that no one who enters this castle can leave?”
Emma hesitates, worried about what this terrifying, furious woman might do to the boy still hidden behind the couch. But then, a voice, worn after an injury and a night of terror. “She saved my life, Mama,” the boy says, and the woman releases Emma in an instant and flies across the room to the boy.
“Henry!” she gasps, and Emma sinks to the ground and stares as the woman drops to her knees to cup the boy’s face.
Let’s rewind, shall we?
We can peer into the everyday lives of Henry and his mother, locked in a castle prison for the duration of Henry’s young life. We can see his wistfulness and his mother’s sorrow at what he’s been denied, we can see his face screw up with determination after being told again that he can never even try to leave, we can see him slip out of bed while his mother watches the rain in silence and slide down the banister, tiptoeing past an arguing clock and candelabra to make a break for the gate.
We can try to understand how a woman of such power and rage can be turned to doting mother for a small boy, or we can return to Emma and her flabbergasted bewilderment and learn from the image that she is seeing instead.
The woman strokes Henry’s face with heartbroken, fraught touches, her eyes welling up with tears as she stares at the cuts on his arms and his bandaged legs. She runs her hand over his leg, a shimmer of magic at the tips of her fingers, but nothing happens to the cuts or bite. “Sweetheart, why?” she asks him, and he sobs in response, sliding his arms around the woman’s neck as though the whole ordeal is only now finally over.
“I just wanted to try, Mama,” he whimpers. “I wanted to see if we could be free. If we could– if there could be some way to escape the curse.”
“Oh, my darling boy,” the woman murmurs, holding him tight. Emma shivers. The empty spot in her heart stings, as it has the tendency to do whenever she sees mothers with their children.
She takes a step back, unwilling to watch any of it, and the woman turns, suddenly reminded of her existence. “You,” she snarls, and if Emma had thought that Henry might have softened her reaction to an intruder, she is very clearly wrong. “I suppose you’ll want something for your troubles. Gold? Jewels?”
“I’d really just like to…go,” Emma says, pulling herself to a stand and running a nervous hand through her hair. The candelabra had called her homely, for fuck’s sake. Was she homely? She’d always thought she was decent-looking, at least.
The woman isn’t focused on her appearance, though. Instead, new rage simmers in her eyes as she snarls out, “Well, that’s too bad. Haven’t you been paying attention? No one leaves this castle. Not without being torn to pieces by wolves.”
“So I’m your prisoner.” Emma peers at her with trepidation, unsure as to whether or not this is bad news or…worse news.
The woman’s lip curls. “We’re both prisoners here,” she grits out. “Throw yourself to the wolves, I don’t care. Just stay away from me and mine.”
"Like I have a choice!" Emma says, outraged. "Listen, if I'm going to be trapped here with you, I'm not going to...lock myself in a room and hide out of your way!" She's had enough nightmares of grubby cells and tight spaces to last her an eternity, and she isn't about to let a nasty queen with some severe anger management issues force her into another one.
"Oh, I beg to differ," the woman snarls. "You'll find it in your best interests not to aggravate me." She lifts an anxious-looking Henry up with a shimmer of magic that actually works and stalks past Emma to the door. “And stay out of the west wing of my castle!” she barks over her shoulder, storming from the room in another burst of energy and slammed-open doors.
The teapot says serenely, “Well, you can’t win them all. Tea, anyone?”